- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Struggling truckers staged a soggy protest on Capitol Hill yesterday to draw attention to the skyrocketing cost of diesel fuel.

A convoy of truckers from Pennsylvania missed an opportunity to impose themselves on the morning rush hour because of an accident on Interstate 270. The rest of their day was no better.

A persistent drizzle shrouded the region as the group arrived downtown about 11 a.m. The rain continued as the truckers took a couple of laps around the Mall. The rain turned into a downpour as the group, Truckers and Citizens United, parked their rigs at RFK Stadium and made the two-mile trek on foot to the Capitol.

“I may be all wet, but I haven’t given up yet,” said William Herr of Mechanicsburg, Pa., whose 2 p.m. speech in a park across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol was canceled by the rain.

The truckers blared their horns and held up signs in cab windows protesting high diesel prices saying, “Enough is enough.” But they might as well have been protesting the global economics of the declining dollar, according to oil industry officials.

The price of oil, which already is flirting with a record $120 a barrel, could rise to $200 a barrel, said Algerian energy minister Chakib Khelil, who is president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The price of diesel soared to a record $4.24 a gallon over the weekend at truck stops nationwide. In Washington, the price was even higher — an average of $4.36 a gallon.

Truckers are likely to continue seeing their costs rise along with the price of the food, retail products and everything else they carry, analysts say.

“Although the cost of diesel fuel is currently 64 cents more than the cost of a gallon of gasoline, a growing number of motorists share the frustration of the truckers,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II.

Organizers of the truckers’ protest yesterday said 90 trucks, 35 pickups and three bus loads of passengers participated in the protest, but others dropped out before it was over.

The truckers blared their horns and slowed traffic but created no major problems for commuters.

An estimated 300 protesters tried to crowd into the Russell Senate Office Building, but security searches took too much time, and security officers refused to allow Mr. Herr to use a bullhorn to address the crowd.

Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who for weeks have waged a bitter word war on which party is most to blame for skyrocketing gas prices, used yesterday’s trucker rally to further the debate.

Democrats say many of the truckers’ concerns, including ending subsidies to oil companies and capping or even tapping into the nation’s oil reserves, are issues they support.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said he “applauds” the truckers for “bringing attention to this critical economic issue.”

“There is no doubt that American families are struggling with the high price of gasoline, but it’s equally true that truck drivers — who move the commerce that is critical to our economic health — are fighting just to maintain their livelihoods,” he said. “We must pay attention to their concerns about the escalating cost of diesel fuel.”

House Democrats point to energy bills they passed in recent months that called for an end to tax breaks for five big oil companies — a provision that has been blocked by Senate Republicans.

“At a time when oil companies are making record profits, it becomes more and more difficult to give them subsidies, especially when Americans are feeling pain at the pump,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman with House Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, has urged the Bush administration to temporarily halt filling the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, saying such action would immediately shave up to 24 cent per gallon off the price of gasoline at the pump.

Jim Bradley, 61, of York, Pa., arrived in his 12-year-old Kenworth truck.

“We are not in this for the glory,” he said.

Mr. Bradley said he paid $4.55 a gallon Wednesday, for a total of $1,400 to fill the truck’s tank on a 2,700-mile trip, compared with $3.27 a gallon in January.

“Wages have not gone up,” Mr. Bradley said, adding he cannot afford the $7,000 needed to overhaul his truck, which had 1,183,093 miles on its odometer yesterday.

Mr. Herr said he paid $1,175 to fill his truck tank last week, and “I have to fill up every two days.”

Members of activist group Code Pink joined the protest to say the cost of most store items are tied to trucking costs.

Truckers who make deliveries in the Washington area are competing with truckers in China and Europe to purchase diesel from the limited supplies refiners produce.

“As the United States has become more dependent on foreign oil, we have also become dependent on the global factors that could affect the price of a barrel of crude oil,” said Jeff Eshelman, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a trade group for oil and gas production companies.

U.S. diesel prices also are affected by new Environmental Protection Agency regulations requiring truckers to use “ultra low sulfur” fuel, which costs more at the pump.

The regulations started taking effect in 2006 and are scheduled to be phased in by 2010.

In addition, the federal excise tax on diesel fuel is 6 cents higher per gallon, or about 24.4 cents per gallon, than the tax on gasoline.

Complicating oil production and distribution is the U.S. housing crisis, which has hurt the nation’s economy and reduced the value of the dollar compared with other currencies.

“The euro is strong as compared to the dollar,” said Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, a trade group for oil and gas distributors.

As a result, refiners try to sell where they get the most value for the diesel they produce.

“A lot of it is being exported, which is putting upward pressure on diesel in the U.S.,” Mr. Gilligan said.

The rise of diesel prices and other fuels is being felt throughout the shipping industry.

United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. have reported significant drops in the number of packages they carry.

They charge customers extra fees, or surcharges, tied to the cost of fuel. Both companies plan to increase surcharges by 25 percent next month.

Shipping costs make up 5 percent to 10 percent of most manufacturers’ costs, up from 3 percent to 5 percent a couple years ago, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing survey committee.

Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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